How coaches could use time off as a recruiting advantage

Wednesday January 25th, 2017

In my previous column for SI.com, I detailed why I believe that Division I college athletes are actually pros working for their schools and should have very different academic requirements than regular students.

NCAA basketball seems to meet the requirements of most corporations, and its players also appear to be “at-will” employees. First, the NCAA generates billions of dollars in revenues. Second, the NCAA could not generate those revenues without its athletes. Third, if you include travel days and game days, college basketball players dedicate about 40 hours a week to their sports. Their bosses, the coaches, usually work even more. Fourth, there are policies about the number of hours, vacation time, and compensation.

Fifth, the players are treated like “at-will” employees. Their scholarships are year by year, and they can dismissed at any time from their teams for unspecified rules violations and lose their scholarships. What’s worse, if they want to leave for a better job and transfer, they have to sit out a year before working again, while their bosses can leave anytime they want for a better opportunity.

I am not one of those people railing against the NCAA and all the money in college sports. That ship has sailed like the domination of technology in our current and future lives. If there is an opportunity for businesspeople to make more money, they usually find ways to do it. So be it. NCAA basketball brings us an amazing spectacle with incredible drama and fantastic personalities. I really don’t care if there is some really rich group of guys behind some big smoky curtain stacking Benjamins. Good for them. They bring opportunity to the players and fun to the fans.

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However, the NCAA last week released a new guideline that really gave me pause for concern: “Require a seven-day break without athletic activities after a team’s season ends. Athletes will get at least another 14 days off outside of their playing and practice season during the academic year.”

Hm. That really looks like three weeks’ vacation to me. What is really bad about it, in my opinion, is the seven-day break after the season ends.

Let’s try to see this rule from the athlete’s eyes. And his sore knees and ankles. We will pick a random program with a college coach I’ve never met: The Atlantic 10’s Saint Louis University, which is coached by Travis Ford.

In the off-season, players can perform up to eight hours a week of “voluntary” athletic activities. They can also do two hours of workouts with a coach and three with other players. In my high school program at Westtown, this is actually called “practice.” However, by calling it something else, the coaches get to ask their players to commit more of their time to the sport. Official practices then started on Oct. 1, and the Billikens’ season began on Nov. 11.

The team is now 5–14 overall and 1–6 in the A-10. The Billikens’ regular season will end March 4 at Richmond, and then the team will play in the A-10 tournament, which ends March 12. I’m no genius sports prognosticator, but it does not look like this team will make any postseason tournaments. If they don’t, their season will end at the same time the school has its spring break, March 12–19. This means basketball players will get a regular spring break, and the coaches cannot make them practice. There’s probably enough time to drive to Daytona, Fla., for Margarita Monday. (For those of legal drinking age, of course.) What a stroke of luck for these boys.

But the way this rule reads, if the Billikens’ season ends on March 8, Ford can make them cut their spring break in half and come back to campus early. Because he might actually think those four days will determine how his team fares in the 2017–18 season.

The NCAA knows all this. The organization still decided these rules were in its best interest, so they aren’t changing anytime soon. As a coach, I know you need really good players to beat really good teams. So how would I separate myself if I were trying to convince Top 100 players to play for Saint Louis?

I have been in more than 100 recruiting meetings with my high school players since 2007. The truth is, most of these meetings are exactly the same. The college coach tells the high school player he is already really good but has a long way to improve. With the coach’s guidance, the player can be a pro (or an All-Star if he’s already projected to be a top pick). And though the coach is demanding, his program is like one big family. Trust me, you could shake the coach’s hand, slip on a pair of Beats, take a power nap for 30 minutes, and you would not miss a thing.

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Before I was a high school coach, I was the founder and CEO of a small sneaker company named AND 1. Our vacation policy was: If you need a vacation, take a vacation. If you are sick, stay home. If you perform well, you will get more money and more responsibility. If you suck at your job, you’re off the team. Bring your pets and your kids to work. And—pretty crucial here—don’t interrupt the lunchtime runs on the indoor corporate basketball court for work. AND 1 was a great place to work.

If I were Ford, I would make Saint Louis the best place to for college players to work in the NCAA.

Here would be my recruiting pitch:

Here is what you already know. The first 30 minutes of what I used to say in these meetings. So let’s make that quick. You are very good; you can be excellent. My staff and I will bust our butts to help you improve. You fully commit to us, and we will fully commit to your dream of being a pro.

Here is what you may not know. I played college hoops, a long time ago. I was pretty good too. Check out my playing record at a small school named Kentucky on Wikipedia.

I remember how tired I was at the end of the season. How during the season, everything used to hurt. How long practices went sometimes. I loved it, but man, I was tired and hurt a lot.

Here is what you probably do not know. Here at Saint Louis, we think that players actually don’t get enough rest. Enough time off from workouts, enough time off from the coaches. We respect your time and also believe that a rested player—in body and mind—is better than an exhausted athlete.

Compare our team rules to those of the NCAA, and almost every other program:

The NCAA requires seven days off after the season before we can start up again. Here at Saint Louis, we want you to take a month off from any workouts after our last game of the year. Yup, a full month. Chill out, play some pick up, post some snapchats or whatever you kids do. Spring break is March 12–19, and Easter Break is April 13–17. Don’t see me until April 18 at the earliest.

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When we start making the NCAA tournament again, we won’t start until a month after we are done. That time will be coming soon, because we are quickly going to make Saint Louis a great place for players.

At most other programs, you will be on the court six days a week for 20 hours. Here, we believe in a max of five days a week, and fifteen hours. We might have a film session, capped at an hour on an off day, but we don’t break our players down day after day, week after week. All the research has told us that athletes need rest to reach their potential, and we practice what we preach.

Trust me kid, Saint Louis is the best college basketball program in the NCAA, and I will be the best boss you have ever had.

If I were a high school player being recruited by Ford, that pitch would really make me consider SLU, a program that needs resurrecting. If I were a parent, I would want my kid to play for that coach. And if he delivered on those promises, before long, Ford would have Saint Louis dancing again in March—and taking long vacations in April.

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